Business Buzz
A Hotelier’s Perspective: Fewer Foreign Travelers Hurts the U.S.
Tuesday, November 30, 2010 - 6:49pm
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The CEO of Marriott International thinks he has the solution for some of the economic problems plaguing the country: make it easier for foreign tourists to visit.  Of course, he has a specific perspective:  he is in the hotel industry. 

A drop in foreign travel to the U.S. has cost the country 440,000 jobs and about $500 billion worth of spending over the last 10 years, J.W. Marriott Jr., the longtime CEO of the more than 3,100-property chain, told a forum hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.  Travel and tourism currently accounts for about eight percent of all U.S. exports, or $120 billion, he said.  Noting that President Obama has set a goal of doubling U.S. exports in five years and generating new jobs, he said, “If we increase that by 10 percent, we [get] another $12 billion of exports, and we'd provide another 100,000 jobs.”

Despite the throngs of foreigners shopping on New York’s Fifth Avenue and visiting Washington’s museums and monuments, the U.S lost a huge market share in global travel over the ten years as new travel markets have expanded and the U.S. has become increasingly unfriendly and inhospitable to foreign tourists in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, he said.

 “We weren't marketing, visas were tough to get, and the perception was, when you came to America, you really weren't welcome,” he said.  Meanwhile, revenue flowed to other destinations where travel rules are less stringent, such as European countries, even though scores of foreign tourists are interested in visiting the United States.  Now, the United States requires most foreign visitors to be interviewed by an embassy staff member in their own country and wait a minimum of 90 days to obtain a visa.  Still, Marriott International, which operates 80 percent of its hotels in the U.S., is set to report a 4.5 percent revenue increase this year and expects further growth next year.

“The sad thing about it is we’re not getting the piece of that action that we should out of this new, emerging travel market, both in China and India, and also in Brazil,” he said.  “You know, more Chinese people visited Paris last year than came to the United States.”  Marriott noted that the average Chinese tourist spends about $7,000 on a single trip to the U.S. compared to the $1,200 an American tourist spends per domestic trip. 

The State and Homeland Security Departments aren’t tuning in to the issue or acknowledging travel as an export, the hotelier said.  “We keep talking, and they look at us and say we're protecting the country.”

Marriott said the Obama administration lacks officials with business experience, which is one reason investors are hoarding cash and banks are holding off on lending. “We’re not running this country like a business,” he said. 

He also implicated Congress as a culprit in dampening business activity—saying lawmakers need to work harder to support the business community.  “They’re (businesses)  are waiting for government to say, here’s the green light on taxes, here’s the green light on health care,” before they invest. 

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